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US alpine skiers: why they are rocking the Vancouver Olympics

Vancouver Olympics: US alpine skiers chalk up their most successful Olympics ever to the motivation of a once-every-four-years chance – and to skiing offensively. If Ted Ligety makes the podium today, it would give the US its ninth medal in alpine skiing.

US Alpine skier Ted Ligety competes in the slalom portion of the Men's super-combined, at the Vancouver Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada on Sunday.

Alessandro Trovati/AP

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US alpine skier Ted Ligety already laid down the fastest slalom run at an Olympic race.

The gold medalist from 2006 didn’t get to stand on the podium for that effort, since it wasn’t enough to make up for his slow downhill run in the combined event. But as a guy who has captured four of his five wins in giant slalom when it was hot enough to wear a T-shirt under his suit, Ligety may well find himself on the podium today if Whistler’s springlike weather keeps up.

That would give the US its ninth medal in alpine skiing – adding momentum to the team’s most successful Olympics ever. Coming into the Games, the record for medals won in a single Olympics by US alpine skiers was five; with four events remaining, they have captured 8 of the 18 awarded – dwarfing ski giants Switzerland and Austria, which have won a pair each. But perhaps more surprising is that more than half of those medals came from Bode Miller, who didn’t start training until just weeks before the season’s first race, and Julia Mancuso, who hadn’t won an international event in three years.

Why Americans rise to the occasion

What is it about the American team that has made them so dominant here, while many of the Europeans and Canadian favorites have crumbled under the pressure? They’re focused on doing their best skiing, not necessarily beating people.

“Our expectations are only on 100 percent effort every day. Just have fun executing,” says men’s head coach Sasha Rearick, adding that he never explicitly said he wanted a certain number of medals here.

Four years ago, Rearick took his young team into Utah’s Uitna mountains to think about this Olympiad. What kind of team did they want to be? What kind of environment did they want to create?

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They wrote down their vision on a rock and carried it up to the top of the mountain. And now, they are kings of the mountain here, having created the challenging but supportive role they envisioned. And they all know that while European teams catch the eye of sponsors and fans every weekend on the World Cup circuit, they get one chance every four years – and they’re here to make the most of it.

“There’s a lot more motivation,” says Ligety, noting that the team doesn’t get much press at World Cup events. “So it gives us that extra little intensity to ski offensively, whereas the Austrians maybe ski more defensively.”

For Miller, it's all about inspiration. Austrian kids grow up inspired by World Cup performances; American kids grow up being inspired by the Olympics – and when they're grownups, they want to inspire others in turn, he says.

“Americans more so than other nations are inspiration-driven,” he said after winning silver in last week's Super-G, with teammate Andrew Weibrecht taking bronze.

Comforts of home

Rookie Will Brandenburg, who came out of nowhere with the second-fastest slalom run in Sunday’s combined – only 0.02 seconds behind Ligety – chalks it up to feeling a little more comfortable in North America. The food, accommodations, and weather are all familiar – and he’s close enough to his hometown of Spokane, Wash., that his friends were able to drive up to watch him race not once, but twice, because the event was rescheduled due to bad weather.

But just as Swiss veterans like Didier Cuche have helped young skiers like Carlo Janka become stars, so Brandenburg credits Miller, Ligety, and other senior members of the team with paving the way for him.

“Skiing is all mental,” he says, clearly riding the team’s growing momentum and euphoria. “I feel like I can be one of the elite skiers in the world now.”

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